The New Era of Food Politics

Food for Life distributes food on an internati...

Food for Life distributes food on an international level.

Most of us have heard a great deal about food lately.

Michael Pollan‘s book Omnivore’s Dilemma caused the agribusiness conglomerates to refer to the millions of his fans as having been, “Pollan-ated”. Food Inc. grossed over $4 million worldwide and was nominated for an Oscar, making it one of the highest viewed documentaries of all time. And recently Michelle Obama just announced the USDA’s program to educate us about proper nutrition by replacing the decades old Food Pyramid.

Multiple factors are fueling this focus on food and nutrition;

  1. Health Care today is eroding American‘s ability to pay for their own health insurance
  2. Food security is breaking down with numerous outbreaks of federal recalls of meat and produce
  3. Increased information about antioxidants and the importance of eating fruits and vegetables
  4. Food prices have soared worldwide, powering a surge in urban farming
  5. The aging Babby-Boomers are demanding better nutrition through food and food supplements

Millions of Americans are now more concerned than ever about what goes in their bodies. Many different definitions have been used to describe people’s choices of what they eat. Vegetarian refers to those who do not eat meat or anything with eyes. Lacto-ovo vegetarians add milk products and eggs to their diets.

Mycena Interrupta is one of many organisms that belong to detritivores.

Unfamiliar to most are the lesser known terms such as “vegcurious”, referring to those that do not identify themselves as vegan or vegetarian but are curious about reducing the amount of meat and dairy in their diet. “Flexitarians”are people who occasionally eat meat, fish and dairy, but stick to a mostly vegetarian lifestyle.

There are also “pescetarians”, who eat fish and seafood to supplement their vegetarian diet. Then there are the “freegans,” who eat only free food, particularly food about to be tossed in the dumpster. This group is out to make a political statement while acting as the human equivalent of the detritivore.

Whatever group you fall into, there is one overwhelming conclusion – we are becoming aware not only of the personal benefits to a more healthy diet, but of the impact our decisions about food have on our planet. We are approaching a time of awakening for human kind (akin to the Age of Enlightenment) where we take a fresh look at the effects of all food related systems that affect our health and our environment.

World Population Chart

This new perspective will be a critical element to our ability to create sustainable agricultural systems that build economic stability, improve quality of agricultural lands and insure the viability of a world population that is on track to reach 10 billion by the year 2040.


We Need A Food Revolution – A Food Manifesto For The Future

Mark Bittman’s February 2, 2011 article, ‘A Food Manifesto for the Future”, published in the New York Times, goes straight to the heart of America’s dysfunctional food policies.

He lists the many failed policies like the subsidizing of mega-farm conglomerates which produce soy for feed stock. Junk food marketers then receive tax write-offs for their re-engineered products labeled as “food”. These subsidies and tax policies are the result of a bygone era where the bigwigs up on capitol hill gave little attention to what the U.S. Agricultural Department was up to. Decades of backdoor deals and quid pro quo arrangements have created the current food policy climate that is causing untold billions of dollars in unnecessary health care costs exacerbating chronic obesity, diabetes and other food related illnesses.

His manifesto is far-reaching and takes a direct stab at the current systems most grievous failings. I’ll take each one in turn to comment and add my own suggestions below:


For decades, Americans believed that we had the world’s healthiest and safest diet. We worried little about this diet’s effect on the environment or on the lives of the animals (or even the workers) it relies upon. Nor did we worry about its ability to endure — that is, its sustainability.

That didn’t mean all was well. And we’ve come to recognize that our diet is unhealthful and unsafe. Many food production workers labor in difficult, even deplorable, conditions, and animals are produced as if they were widgets. It would be hard to devise a more wasteful, damaging, unsustainable system.

Here are some ideas — frequently discussed, but sadly not yet implemented — that would make the growing, preparation and consumption of food healthier, saner, more productive, less damaging and more enduring. In no particular order:

  • End government subsidies to processed food. We grow more corn for livestock and cars than for humans, and it’s subsidized by more than $3 billion annually; most of it is processed beyond recognition. The story is similar for other crops, including soy: 98 percent of soybean meal becomes livestock feed, while most soybean oil is used in processed foods. Meanwhile, the marketers of the junk food made from these crops receive tax write-offs for the costs of promoting their wares. Total agricultural subsidies in 2009 were around $16 billion, which would pay for a great many of the ideas that follow.

The tax write-offs given to marketers of salty, sugar-laden, fried snack products help to create “food deserts” in our inner cities. These products are then sold on shelves at artificially low prices. When low-income consumers are faced with buying a piece of fruit or some vegetables, they choose the unhealthy, preprocessed “snacks” based mainly upon price. This unfair market environment is being propagated by large multinational conglomerates whose only concern is for their shareholders. By ending these subsidies, we as a nation can begin to level the playing field and give nutritious, healthful and real foods a chance against the convenience and seductive nature of heavily processed snack products.

  • Begin subsidies to those who produce and sell actual food for direct consumption. Small farmers and their employees need to make living wages. Markets — from super- to farmers’ — should be supported when they open in so-called food deserts and when they focus on real food rather than junk food. And, of course, we should immediately increase subsidies for school lunches so we can feed our youth more real food.

Bittman suggests here that we shift these subsidies to those who are producers of “actual food”. I view this as an interim policy strategy because, in my view, subsidies create unnatural market conditions, subject entrepreneurs to becoming dependent upon government money and therefore thwart innovation. That said, those urban farmers now struggling to make a living could, with moderate subsidies, follow their hearts and create thriving small business urban farms within their communities.

  • Break up the U.S. Department of Agriculture and empower the Food and Drug Administration. Currently, the U.S.D.A. counts among its missions both expanding markets for agricultural products (like corn and soy!) and providing nutrition education. These goals are at odds with each other; you can’t sell garbage while telling people not to eat it, and we need an agency devoted to encouraging sane eating. Meanwhile, the F.D.A. must be given expanded powers to ensure the safety of our food supply. (Food-related deaths are far more common than those resulting from terrorism, yet the F.D.A.’s budget is about one-fifteenth that of Homeland Security.)

In January of 2009, a letter was sent to the highest levels of government to expose corruption by top FDA official’s whose violation of laws and altering of scientific finding has caused a shakeup within the agency. The FDA currently regulates over $1 trillion of consumer goods (that accounts for $0.25 of every dollar spent in the U.S.). The letter was written by scientists and physicians in the FDA! This agency is broken and needs to have the corrupt officials removed and replaced with honest, forward thinking individuals up to the task of creating sound, sustainable and safe policies to protect the health of ourselves and our children.

  • Outlaw concentrated animal feeding operations and encourage the development of sustainable animal husbandry. The concentrated system degrades the environment, directly and indirectly, while torturing animals and producing tainted meat, poultry, eggs, and, more recently, fish. Sustainable methods of producing meat for consumption exist. At the same time, we must educate and encourage Americans to eat differently. It’s difficult to find a principled nutrition and health expert who doesn’t believe that a largely plant-based diet is the way to promote health and attack chronic diseases, which are now bigger killers, worldwide, than communicable ones. Furthermore, plant-based diets ease environmental stress, including global warming.

Anyone who has watched Food, Inc. or read Diet for a New America knows that the way animals are raised for mass meat production is a horrible sight to see. This tragedy plays itself out over and over across the globe. Other nations have taken our approach to meat production on a massive scale to keep pace. Destruction of the Amazon, forested lands and other areas not suitable for cattle grazing have been clear cut, making way for intensive and unsustainable animal husbandry productions in their place. What is needed is a reversal of this trend and a move back toward non-centralized, localized farming operations. Sustainability is paramount. And as our petroleum reserves dwindle, the price at the pump will inevitably rise making the cost of transporting, storing and cooling our food production ever more expensive.

  • Encourage and subsidize home cooking. (Someday soon, I’ll write about my idea for a new Civilian Cooking Corps.) When people cook their own food, they make better choices. When families eat together, they’re more stable. We should provide food education for children (a new form of home ec, anyone?), cooking classes for anyone who wants them and even cooking assistance for those unable to cook for themselves.

I know of many organizations that promote communal cooking here in the Bay Area. Frugal Foodies for instance gathers, people of all culinary experience together once a week to explore building community through meal preparation and eating as a group. Three Stone Hearth is a worker owned cooperative in West Berkeley. TSH gives cooking classes to the public and offers internships that teach people a variety of cooking techniques in a professional kitchen. For those too busy to cook, they provide a healthy menu of fully cooked foods for people to buy.

  • Tax the marketing and sale of unhealthful foods. Another budget booster. This isn’t nanny-state paternalism but an accepted role of government: public health. If you support seat-belt, tobacco and alcohol laws, sewer systems and traffic lights, you should support legislation curbing the relentless marketing of soda and other foods that are hazardous to our health — including the sacred cheeseburger and fries.
  • Reduce waste and encourage recycling. The environmental stress incurred by unabsorbed fertilizer cannot be overestimated, and has caused, for example, a 6,000-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is probably more damaging than the BP oil spill. And some estimates indicate that we waste half the food that’s grown. A careful look at ways to reduce waste and promote recycling is in order.

In commercial farming operations phosphates in chemical fertilizers can run off contaminating water supplies which can cause “algal blooms”. All available oxygen is absorbed by the reproduction of the algae suffocating living organisms like fish. Organic farms apply compost to the fields from vegetable matter, worm castings, chicken manure, etc. This process forms a rich topsoil matrix resistant to erosion.

  • Mandate truth in labeling. Nearly everything labeled “healthy” or “natural” is not. It’s probably too much to ask that “vitamin water” be called “sugar water with vitamins,” but that’s precisely what real truth in labeling would mean.

I believe rating systems need to be simple and easy to read. I agree with Bittman’s point here but, suggest a simpler approach. Foods could have labels telling the consumer, on a scale from 1 – 3 how healthy the food is; organic kale would get a 3, non-organic corn would get a 1. I think junk foods need labeling similar to that of alcohol and tobacco products warning the consumer of the potential effects of consumption. For example, a label for deep fried pig shin could read; “Warning: eating fried foods can lead to heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Not recommended for children under 12 and women who are pregnant and/or lactating.”

  • Reinvest in research geared toward leading a global movement in sustainable agriculture, combining technology and tradition to create a new and meaningful Green Revolution. I’ll expand on these issues (and more) in the future, but the essential message is this: food and everything surrounding it is a crucial matter of personal and public health, of national and global security. At stake is not only the health of humans but that of the earth.

A comprehensive food policy which values the soil as a living organism and the people who work the land is necessary if we are to provide a sustainable system of feeding the population into the future. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, “U.S. Fertilizer Use and Price” the average rate of soil erosion is over 7 tons of  soil per acre per year. This is a devastating loss of a natural resource that can be prevented. Likewise, we need to retain and attract talented people whose knowledge of sustainable farming practices are vital to our future farms.

Mark Bittman’s original column appeared in print on February 2, 2011.

Scientists’ Letter Claiming FDA Corruption Is Authentic, by Heidi Stevenson, 16 March 2010

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